Stories of the Tunes – My Home

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By Roderick Cannon

This well known air has had a varied history, in the course of which it has become separated into at least two distinct tunes, played on the pipes as a slow march and a jig. It first appears in Patrick MacDonald’s collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784), in the section headed ‘Western Isle Airs’, with the title, Posadh peathair In bhain, i.e. “The wedding of John Ban’s sister”. Donald MacDonald prints it as a pipe tune in 1828, with the same Gaelic title, differently spelt:

‘Posadh Piuhar Iain Bhain”. The earliest known pipe setting, from Donald MacDonald’s collection of Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels and Jigs, Edinburgh, 1828, p. 60.

As a pipe tune, however it does not seem to have been very much played: the only other printed setting is in Glen’s Collection for the Great Highland Bagpipe (Book 3), published by J. and R. Glen about 1870. The Glen brothers owned the copyright of Donald MacDonald’s collection, and they seem to have copied the tune from the earlier book without much alteration. The Gaelic words of the song, an excellent comic ballad of 13 verses, are printed in the Celtic Monthly, volume 19, page 20. The chorus runs as follows:

I hu ro ho, i ho ro ho,
Cuiridh mi luinneag an ordugh dhuibh
I hu ro ho, i ho ro ho,
Air posadh piuthar Iain Bhain.

These words evidently go with the first part of the melody, and the narrative verses go with the second part.

The present popularity of the tune, and the name by which it is now known, derive from an entirely different song composed towards the end of the 19th century. According to Alfred Moffat, “the original words being unsatisfactory, Mr. Malcolm MacFarlane of Elderslie wrote new Gaelic verses to the melody at the request of Mr. Archibald Ferguson, conductor of the Gaelic St. Columba Choir, Glasgow. For the excellent translation of these verses Mr. Alexander Stewart. Polmont, was awarded a prize by An Comunn Gaidhealach”. The new song is of the sentimental type known in Victorian times as a “ballad,” and is also very good of its kind. The chorus in Gaelic runs:

Seinn hiribh o, hiuraibh o, hugaibh o hi,
So agaibh an obhair bheir togail fo m’chridh’,
Bhi stiuradh mo chasan do m’dhachaidh bhig fhin,
Air criochnachadh saothair an la dhomh.

Alexander Stewart’s translation is in Lowland Scots dialect:

Sing cheerilie, couthilie, merrie and free,
O this is the oor of sweet solace for me;
When wearied wi’ toilin’ out owre the green lea
I toddle wi’ glee to my ain hoose.

I have not been able to find out the exact date of the new song, but I should guess it was about 1890. The Gaelic words and tune were published by An Comunn Gaidhealach in the Mòd Collection of Gaelic Part Songs (Book 1, tune No. 1), having been set for competition at some time in the period 1896-1912. The English version is in Moffat’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Highlands, undated but probably not long after 1900.

The new song must have been an immediate hit, and the tune was soon well known to pipers. The earliest written settings show unmistakable signs of having been learned first by ear, and written down afterwards. One setting by F, MacRae, in Henderson’s Tutor for the Bagpipe and Collection of Pipe Music, 1900, is in 2/4 time whereas all previous settings were 6/8. Two others in manuscripts about 70 years old, in my possession, are in 6/8 but contain some mistakes of notation which show that the writer had only heard, and not seen, the music of the song. A revised version of one of these is shown here:

Ex, 2. “My Home’. From MSS. of Corporal Thomas Porteous, 8th Battalion Royal Scots, written in 1909. In the o 1 MSS. some of the notes were wrongly timed, and a bar line was out of place. The music is unpointed but the D gracenotes in bars 7 and 15 suggest that the preceding melody notes C and B were cut short.

The printed arrangement in the Kilberry Book of Ceol Meadhonach, 1908, is different from the others but is claimed by the authors, in a note appended to the tune, to have been written down “exactly as sung”.

It is noticeable that although the English version was originally entitled, My Ain Hoose, the form My Home which is closer to the Gaelic “Mo dhachaidh,” has always been preferred by pipers. More striking, however, is the fact that with the transfer to pipes, the tune has changed its character and become a slow air. Patrick MacDonald’s original setting is marked “Brisk,” and this is in line with many other comic and bawdy ballads that are sung to a dancing rhythm. The later song is marked with the directions “Cheerily” in the Gaelic version, and “Allegretto” in Moffat’s setting. Also an anonymous writer in the Celtic Monthly (Vol. 3, p. 200) refers to “the spirited melody to which ‘Mo Dhachaidh’ is sung”. Henderson calls the pipe setting a march, but later publications, starting with the Army Manual of Bagpipe Tunes in 1934, have all made it into a slow march. It was played most effectively as a lament, at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

Meanwhile, the original wedding song in quick time his not been forgotten. There is a fine rendering of it in duet by Donald Ross and William Burnett, on Waverley Record ZLP 2005. The tune is a kind of streamlined modification of the original, but still recognisable:

The air of the song ‘Posadh piuthar Iain Bhain,’ transcribed by Roddy Cannon from Waverley Record ZLP 2005. The first line is the chorus, and repeated after each verse. The music has been transposed up from the key of E, for comparison with the other settings.

and this version, or one like it, has been newly arranged for the pipes as a jig, by Iain MacKay, published in John MacFadyen’s second collection, 1973. Other variants of the tune are also known. The jig, My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing has the same concluding phrases, and one appeared under the title, John Bain Sister’s Wedding. This is in the Seaforth Highlanders’ Collection, 1936. It would be interesting to know what story lies behind the name. Finally, the modern four-part 6/8 march, Rab’s Wedding, bears a distinct likeness to the present one, especially in its first and third parts.

* From the February 1979 Piping Times.

• Here is a video clip of the tune being played at the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002: